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Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Buffet for a King

A Royal Indian lunch

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A warm, milky cup of chai is relaxing any time of the year, but it’s especially comforting during the chilly endgame of winter. The chai served at Royal India is a mild pick-me-up for the midday, a gentler uplift than yet another round of coffee.

It’s also a fine accompaniment to Royal India’s lunch buffet ($7.95), served 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. seven days a week. Royal India is nothing to look at from the outside, a drab slab on a corner of a featureless stretch of South 27th Street. Inside, however, the restaurant lights up. The tile floor, white walls and sparse adornment of scenes from Indian mythology and history conjure up an airy sense of spaciousness. The aroma is wonderful. The Indian music is dreamy.

The servers are friendly and, without bidding, will bring you a second cup of chai. The customer is indeed treated royally. Lunch buffets have become the stock-in-trade at most Indian restaurants in the Midwest. Royal India’s has much to offer. Separating it from lesser buffets is freshness and careful preparation. The onion bhaji is crispy, not greasy. The vegetable samosa, filled with potato and a touch of cilantro in a paper-thin golden brown crust, is done to perfection. The tandoori chicken, appetizingly arrayed on a bed of chopped onion and parsley, is tender but not very meaty and includes a bit of gristle. Likewise the meat in the kadhai chicken surrenders easily to the fork but can be bony. The sauce in which the chicken is sauteed offers compensation with its tasty blend of bell peppers, onions, tomatoes, coriander and ginger.

Other chicken dishes fare better, especially the tikka masala with great cubes of meat in a creamy orange sauce. Unfortunately there was no vindaloo at a recent visit. Chicken vindaloo is said to be a specialty of the dinner menu. At lunch, goat curry is also an option.

Vegetarians will have plenty to feast on, including shahi paneer, cottage cheese in a creamy herbed sauce; saag, a spinach dish; and a zucchini stew. The sweet carrot salad called gaimar is intended as dessert but can provide a pleasant counterpoint to the mildly spiced main courses. With the possible exception of the mango pickle, one of the condiments along with the usual mint chutney and tamarind sauce, the flavors at Royal India’s buffet are soft-edged.

Of course, you can top off the meal with kheer, the sweet watery rice pudding familiar from virtually every other Indian buffet. It goes nicely with a final cup of chai. (Photo by Don Rask)

ROYAL INDIA
3400 S. 27th St. 647-9600 $-$$ Smoke Free Handicap Access: Yes